Poetry is the soul’s music, and without it we might forget how to move to the rhythm of the universe. It is also the distillation of our perceptions of what we experience in our separate realities, and its expression is our creative, written attempt to share that reality with each other. You know, poetry is a very human thing to do, and we could say that poetry is where Man’s hand meets God’s creation on the written page.
As you move through any day in your life you have to acknowledge the utterly complete, and even incomprehensible, organization of the material plane in which we exist and live. The organization allows for our minds to achieve, and maintain, a sense of “reality.” Within those existential boundaries, regardless of who they were created by, we are able to construct our experiences via our awareness and memory. This organization, this set of rules that we all agree to by default (since we have no say in the matter), allows us to know love, hate, peace, war, chaos, calm, life and… death. These are the “stuff” that poems are about: life.
The authors, the poets, the creators of the poems, songs and musical stories we read and love use numerous rules, conventions and inventions that allow us, the readers, to share in their reality; their life experiences and understandings. So, in our study of poetry it is sometimes worthwhile studying these very same rules, conventions and inventions so that we may better understand the poet’s intent. In the final analysis, the study of these may even allow us to try our hand, no pun intended, with secretly creating a poem or two of our own. Wink, wink!
Just for starters there are rhyme, meter, rhythm, alliteration and word choice. And that’s just for starters. We can continue with figurative language, hyperbole, similies, metaphors and analogies. Still there are more, and oh yes, it is at this point that I can hear the students beginning to groan. You know – I have to agree with them. Poetry is NOT the methodology used to write the poem, and studying these takes away some of the magic.
Poetry is NOT meter. Poetry is NOT alliteration. Poetry is NOT rhyme. Poetry is NOT any one convention.
Poetry is an idea that the author wants to share with the reader. So, if students are groaning because we are simply going down the list of “poetic vocabulary” then we are doing them a great injustice. The authors certainly did not intend for that. Frankly, the authors couldn’t care less whether the students know how to define rhyme. They only care that they can hear it and enjoy it.
Instead, the focus should revert back to the author’s intent, and it is here that the lesson of poetry should begin and end. A search for understanding and truth in the author’s words. Now, during this process it may be worthwhile examining one or two of those aforementioned rules, conventions and inventions.
When teaching these conventions, it behooves the teacher to pick a poem that perfectly illustrates the rule or convention. For example, while studying Shakespeare I would probably go ahead and let them know it is a Sonnet; however, I would not allow this to detract from the meaning of the poem. I simply label the type of poem so that they may recognize it in the future. Sonnets use meter and rhyme to place emphasis on specific words or ideas within the poem. The construction of the Sonnet is a tool that Shakespeare used to help him single out words and phrases to help the reader understand the idea he was trying to communicate.
As teachers, one thing to keep in mind is that if a student is fairly proficient in reading they can, and will, “get” poetry. They don’t need to know what the rules or conventions are that they are reading. Rhyme happens when the poem is read whether the students know what rhyme is or not. So, while we teach poetry the last thing we want to do is add fuel to the fire for those students who do not like poetry. We don’t want to cause the “I hate poetry because it is too complex” syndrome. My experience has been that students who don’t like poetry are not very good readers. So, invariably, reading poetry is difficult for them.
Therefore, another consideration with poetry is the reading level of the student. Poems must be on par with the student’s reading level. This is especially true with poetry since in many cases the poem’s author relies on the reader to supply some of their own understanding, words or interpretation during the course of the reading.
To summarize, when you are sharing a poem with your students the key focus will be for the student to understand what the author is trying to communicate. What idea or experience are they trying to give life to in the reader’s mind? What is the poet’s intent? Of secondary focus, and not required with every poem, is the exposure to the various elements used by poets to construct and convey their message. Finally, use poems that are relevant to the student’s experiences and on par with their reading level. The more contemporary the language and ideas, the more understood the poem will be. Make sense?
Teach for success, and empower your students to think on their own.
R. Chris Wilkins